As Hollywood has long known, Americans prefer melodramas that sort people into the good and the evil. So, we treat Jefferson as an icon of our unresolved prejudices and inequalities, which trace to slavery. As that burden becomes conspicuous in our national understanding, partisans wish to cast Jefferson as either an antislavery hero or a proslavery villain. In fact, he was both and neither.
Contradiction lay at the heart of the democracy that he helped create, one based on the consent of citizens. In his lifetime, Virginia’s citizens were white men, and many of them legally owned people of color. Committed to serving the will of citizens, Jefferson defended their (and his) right to practice slavery even while he criticized the system in principle.
Jefferson knew that slavery debased masters as it exploited enslaved people. He feared that masters became brutal and passionate. In his famous book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” He later described his countrymen as “zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others.” Recalling the revolution against British rule, he marveled that a Virginian could “inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”
Jefferson worried that enslaved people would revolt and destroy Virginia. On some night, a simmering plot might suddenly erupt into bloody retribution. Jefferson expected that God would help rebels crush their oppressors. “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. … The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” To avert destruction, Virginia’s masters needed to free themselves from slavery.
Jefferson regarded emancipation as necessary but insufficient to liberate whites from danger. Despite declaring all men created equal, in Notes on the State of Virginia, he notoriously described black people as “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Forsaking his usual optimism about human progress, Jefferson denied that people of different races could learn to live together as equals. He insisted that emancipated slaves would seek revenge, producing bloody “convulsions,” culminating “in the extermination of the one or the other race.” He likened slavery to possessing a dangerous beast: “We have the wolf by the ear and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”